The Tragic Self: Catastrophe and Trauma

I think it is important to distinguish between the tragic or unforeseen and what can be predicted. Most people refer to the predictable as the tragic. For example, news headlines declared the devastation wrought by hurricane Katrina to be a tragedy. This “tragedy” was a predictable event. In fact, the destruction caused by Katrina illustrates what happens when a city is built on a flood plain, hundreds of feet below sea level. The real tragedy was the lack of response to those who suffered from the natural event.

 In terms of literature and film, tragedy, shows how those who suffer greatly must face decisions of ultimate consequence.  Some act with cruelty, while others show us the path to take to overcome adversity.

  The film Clockwork Orange contains scenes of tragedy and suffering.  One question to consider is whether Alex is tragic.  Aristotle argues that the tragic hero must be noble and great.  S/he must have virtue and goodness.  We should see in him or her someone who is essentially like us, although perhaps elevated to a higher position in society.

Aristotle argues that the hero’s downfall, therefore, is partially her/his own fault, the result of free choice, not of accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate.  In fact, the tragedy is usually triggered by some error of judgment or some character flaw that contributes to the hero’s lack of perfection.  This error of judgment or character flaw is known as hamartia and is usually translated as “tragic flaw.”  Hamartia is a mistake or error in judgment.  It happens when we make the wrong choices.  Hamartia includes accident and mistakes which are the result of our bad choices.  For example, the hero might want to achieve a certain objective X but because an error in judgment is made, the hero achieves the opposite of X.  This is hamartia.  Aristotle cites the example of Oedipus who tries to avoid killing his father and marrying his mother but by his actions instead causes those very things to happen.  Nothing Oedipus does can change the outcome of his bad choice.

Often the character’s hamartia involves hubris (which is defined as a sort of arrogant pride or over-confidence).  Aristotle further claims that the hero’s misfortunate is not wholly deserved.  The punishment exceeds the crime.  Was this the case with Alex?  Did his punishment and torture exceed his crime?  At the end of the movie, we see that Alex has no remorse or increase in awareness.  He does not come out of his experience of suffering a better person.  The director seems to want us to feel sorry for Alex but because he is not a tragic hero, he cannot be pitied.

Aristotle argues that all human happiness or misery takes the form of action, i.e., what we do, and what is done to us.  The film shows how various institutions can perpetuate suffering.  The law does not give justice, but violence.  The hospital does not offer hospitality and healing, but hostility.  The prison does not offer reform, but punishment and perversion.  Religion does not offer the elimination of suffering, but the call to embrace further suffering.  Institutional culture defines to whom suffering occurs.  It also regulates when, where and how suffering occurs.

            Stephen Levine believes that “we are powerless before trauma.” This is not correct. In trying to make sense of the traumatic, we have power over it. Unlike Levine, I do not see trauma within the perspective of tragedy. The fictions of Greek tragedies are not on the same level as real trauma. Yes, someone may provide yet another reading of Oedipus or Electra, but in the end, the traumatic still happens. The hopeless are not saved by the publication of another book on Sophocles.

            Levine attempts to “focus on the ways in which arts can come to terms with human suffering.” His conclusion that Samuel Beckett’s work is exemplary in capturing the essence of suffering is fine from a literary point of view but not from an existential position.

            Levine does realize that his work is “an impossible project” As he puts it, “it attempts to speak about the unspeakable” and in doing so, “must necessarily fail” Of course, while Levine’s logic may be correct, I do think that we can make sense of trauma and suffering. After all, trauma and suffering have a human origin. It is not as if some alien descended from the planet X and committed these atrocities unexpectedly. Humans did these things because this is how humans choose to act. As such, there is nothing mystical or unspeakable about suffering. We simply assert- humans did this to their own kind.

            I differ from Levine in believing that trauma and suffering do not defy understanding. If they did defy understanding, I would not have begun to paint. I would have sat down like Job in a pile of ashes smoking Marlboros and eating apple pie. If trauma defies understanding, then the obvious question to ask is, what role does the therapist play in analyzing the so called “unspeakable.”

            Levine argues, “in suffering, the sense of the world disappears.” I believe the opposite to be true; suffering is one way in which to sense the world. This also means that trauma forces us to discover the core of joy that no amount of suffering and sorrow can erode. This great truth emerged for me, out of the mass grave at Vukovar.

            Levine believes that “art aims to become effective, to have an effect on others.” Last week, I looked at the collection of paintings that I finished during my time of trauma. Over 200 pieces of work were completed. The works that I will never publicly exhibit are foreign to me now. All that can be said, is the person who painted these pieces was obviously suffering. The fact that I no longer recognize myself in these works shows me that trauma does not remain, “a badge of identity.”

            Art, as I see it, is not surrender to death, but a struggle against it. Rilke may have loved life so generously that he loved death too, but I no longer believe in Greco-Germanic myths that have us surrender to our fate so that we may become blessed.

Levine’s brand of Dionysian poesis, in my opinion fails to capture what is really at stake. For example, he writes, “The only cultural act….which the West brought that was meaningful to the besieged city of Sarajevowas Susan Sontag’s production of Waiting for Godot.” Having lost friends in that conflict, my reply is simply,  how wonderful of Susan Sontag to bring culture to a city that was one of the most culturally developed capitals in Europe before thisEurope allowed it to be destroyed.

            Levine sees Godot as “a mimesis” of the Sarajevans “own reality. What the citizens of Sarajevodesperately needed was not another staging of Waiting for Godot but the arrival of a means of defense. As Zizek has repeatedly pointed out, such beautiful souls fail to do what really needs to be done.  For those who lived through the siege, the cultural act par excellence was the West allowing the bombing to continue for so long when it clearly had the means to stop it.  Godot inSarajevo signals the catastrophe of modernity.

            Levine writes, “this is the groundless hope of a Dionysian philosophy that even in an abyssal world, it is still possible to sing.” At the grave, I did not hear any singing. Perhaps people sing after having seen Oedipus Rex staged. At the mass grave, I heard only silence. It was a strange silence; very different from the meditative silence found in Buddhist temples and university libraries. Here the words of psychologist Rudolf Arnheim are poignant. He writes, “eyesight is insight.”

            The insights I gathered from my lived experiences run counter to Levine’s theoretical insights, however well articulated and well referenced they are. Any theory of art therapy will ultimately fail to capture the uniqueness of every singular experience. This is why so many have not caught up with Derrida’s Franciscan insights as they continue to read him through other filters. Theory is useless when one is confronted with trauma.

            When I saw the mass grave, I did not think to myself, “You know, Beckett was right when he wrote, “Nothing to be done” or Lacan was correct in his formulation of objet petit a as the basis of human lack. At the grave, I did not think of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body even though hundreds of stinking corpses surrounded me. No, I recalled the children’s song, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down”, especially as I gazed upon the little skulls with bullet holes in them.

            I returning to my homeland ravaged by a war imposed on it, I was told that I alone was responsible for what happened to me. I do not think that I was looking for death. I was looking for justice, not revenge. I do not need to understand why this happened to me. I need to understand why this event happened at all. It is of course, reassuring for those on the outside to blame the victim so that somehow they will avoid the same catastrophe. Did I ask for this gift of death that was to become an event that would re-orientate the co-ordinates of my life?

            I did not seek out the traumatic because I enjoy suffering. What if the opposite were true-that suffering was the only way to finally wake me up from my philosophic slumber. The mass grave was a kind of initiation. Here I can agree with Chogyam Trungpa’s insights. He writes, “ to our horror we find that there is no place to run. We are discovered in the act of hiding behind a façade, exposed on all sides; the padding and armor that we have worn are all stripped away. There is no longer any place to hide.” SM, 56  The mass grave forced me to really stop properly. This proper stop, where X marks the spot put an end to self-deception and dreaming. At the grave, my dream-worlds disappeared.

            Levine would have us “embrace our own chaos.” However, what does this exactly mean? He writes, “Since we are chaotic, we can face the chaos of trauma without feeling that we must expel it from our being.” Is it not the other way around? Since we are not chaotic, we have such difficulty with trauma. If chaos were the essence of our Heideggerian ground, then there would be no problem in dealing with trauma. Trauma would be just another form of chaos that we already are. The experience of trauma says otherwise.

            Levine asks, “What kind of art is adequate to the experience of trauma? To me, the answer is the art of the terrible, the grotesque, and the ugly.” Here Levine cites the paintings of Francis Bacon. Bacon’s work had a huge impact on me. I thought, yes, this is it. I must take his work further into ugliness and darkness. Therefore, I painted a la Bacon and then I had an epiphany.  What I was painting was only giving strength to death, darkness and chaos. I then began to paint landscapes and I think this is when I began to heal. Ten years after my traumatic event, I realize that art cannot save us from anything. Art is not salvific. It is not a salve or ointment. Returning to life is the grace that saves. Art can be compared to the planting dead trees, decorating them with plastic fruit, taking a picture and then submitting it to landscape magazine. Your deception is rewarded with the best garden of the year award, which simply reinforces the delusion that there is nothing wrong with your approach to “reality.”

            Levine believes that we must find a way to acknowledge all the pain and suffering in the world and still say Yes! to our existence. This Nietzschean turn of phrase is very poetic. Somehow, I would like to see an existence that is free from trauma. If the Buddhists are correct, then such freedom can be found in the kitchen sink while the dishes are being washed.

            Levine contends that ” the wildness of Dionysian revelry is the orgiastic coming of new life from the grave of the dead.” At the mass grave, I did not see the Dionysian things that ground Levine’s theorizing. To answer Yeats, the rough beast that slouches towardsBethlehemto be born is a human made chimera that will be celebrated by the Dionysian mob that never quite knew what thinking means. When I hear a return to the Dionysian I am reminded of what Hulsenbeck, one of the founding fathers of Dada said inBerlinin 1918: ” Life should hurt, there is not enough cruelty.” This is the art that Paul Virillio calls “pitiless.”

            Levine argues : “And when the grave digger shows us our grave, we will leap into it, both laughing and crying.” Here I am reminded of a song by the Dave Matthews Band. Matthews sings, “Gravedigger, when you dig my grave, can you make it shallow, so I can feel the rain.” I wonder, why all this negotiation with gravediggers who have forgotten what it means to be alive. My son and daughter love life. They are reminders for me that any philosophy that still traffics with death suffers from a negativity that destroys life. Art is an attempt to overcome all graves. It is precisely the grave that must be overcome. The Dionysian orgiastic is a thanatophilia without hope or promise of resurrection.


About Mark Zlomislic

Philosopher. Writer. Artist. My Studio/Gallery Inscape Fine Art is located in Cambridge, Ontario. Viewing by Appointment Only. Please email:
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